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Protest, Arrests at Pride Parade Highlight Racism, Transphobia in LGBTQ Community

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Protest, Arrests at Pride Parade Highlight Racism, Transphobia in LGBTQ CommunityPhoto by Sam Lustig.
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As the LGBTQ liberation movement continues to celebrate progress, black and brown members within the community are left behind.

Trans women of color are assaulted and murdered at more than four times the rate of cis women in this country. There have been 14 murders this year to date.

Simultaneously, stories and updates on police brutality and justice unserved circulate paper and webpage in a constant, almost normalizing way. Men and women of color live in fear of jumpy officers equipped with deadly firearms. Friday, June 16 — the day leading up to Columbus’ Pride Parade — was a final straw for several protestors.

The Minnesota officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, a black man out with his family, was acquitted on all charges.

A day later, Stonewall, a leading organization in the LGBTQ community asked people of color to attend their heavily policed parade.

“After the acquittal, we were angry,” said protestor Wriply Bennet, a black trans woman. At first she and her friends Kendall Denton, Ashley Braxton and Deandre Miles, were going to pass on the parade. But, when the acquittal was announced, they felt they had to do something.

“Everything that has happened in this city so far just like, boiled up, and it’s like, so they can ignore this happening across the country — they can ignore this happening here. They ignore our deaths, they ignore our struggles, and I was like, ‘How can you be proud? How can you march in a parade for pride when you ought to be ashamed of yourselves?’”

In peaceful protest, Bennet and the others taped their mouths, locked arms, and stepped into the street, where parade participants marched. It wasn’t on their minds to ask for permission; they didn’t concern themselves with bureaucracy or decorum. Tape over their mouths, they had one thing to say:

“We’ve been silenced,” Bennet said. “And we’ve largely been silenced by our own community, and that silence equals death.”

Relevantly, they wanted seven minutes of silence, “for the seven shots that Philando Castile took in that car during that traffic stop.”

Not long after the protest began, law enforcement arrived to break it up. Their rules of engagement dictated officers use a verbal command to clear the parade route, and, if it isn’t followed, subsequent forceful removal using their bikes as barricades. Bennet, Denton, Braxton and Miles were then maced, pushed to the ground and arrested. Onlookers cheered.

“Mace was used after the verbal requests by officers were ignored and to facilitate getting order back quickly. Bunches of people in one location is of great concern to me and my leadership team,” wrote Commander Robert Strausbaugh with the Columbus Division of Police in an email.
Later, he said “The group would have benefitted in their goal, recognition of their issues, if they would have made us aware of their action prior to their entering the street.”

After the arrests, Bennet and her friends were held for several hours. First they were kept at the police’s station, separate from the parade. After they were booked, the protestors sat outside the courthouse awaiting the next step. Throughout the process, Bennet described being dead named (using a trans person’s birth name) and misgendered, and said one officer assumed her genitalia as male.

As the group was processed, chaos was erupting behind the scenes at Stonewall Columbus, the leading organization for the city’s LGBTQ community. Lori Gum, former Stonewall Senior Program Manager and coordinator for the Pride Parade, was frantic, racing around on her golf cart, dispatching a Stonewall representative to assess the protestors’ legal situation.

She attempted to craft a statement in response to the protest and arrests, and “begged” Stonewall Columbus’ Executive Director Karla Rothan and the Board of Trustees to release their own statement, any statement, to show support and comfort to a community whose racial divide was just starkly revealed.

None came — not for six days.

In the interim, Gum and 16 individuals from the organization’s committee and PIT crew tendered their resignations and, along with voices from the black queer community, demanded that Rothan and the board do the same.

“The truth of the matter is the executive director and the board didn’t meet together about this issue until Wednesday night,” Gum said. “This isn’t change, and I couldn’t be a part of this. I did not and do not see real change happening within this community, and particularly Pride, until the leadership at Stonewall changes, and I’ve had no indication even to this day that that is going to happen.”

Bennet said the parade and its planners have long been out of touch, consistently drawing a predominantly white crowd by hosting an abundance of law enforcement. Just that, a police presence, is enough to alienate black and brown members of the LGBTQ community, she said. But what other option is there when a parade is, by law, required to have police supervision, and when the state of security seems to be at its most fragile point?

This year was the first in which water barricades were used at each parade entrance. They’re meant to disable vehicles from barreling into the crowd, as was the tactic used in the attack on 11 people on the Ohio State University campus last November. In the days leading up to the parade, one Columbus City School staffer posted on the event’s Facebook page, expressing that he hoped it “turns out like the Boston Marathon.”

The way these threats are managed do not make room for the needs of LGBTQ minorities. In order to change that, policy would need to change — around the way event permits are dispersed, and around the way security is hired to keep events safe. Currently, a permit requires the accompaniment of a receipt of payment to CPD. It would take the collaboration of the police department, the City of Columbus, Stonewall Columbus and the LGBTQ community at large to develop an inclusive plan for security, but that hasn’t come up in the statements published by Stonewall, and Columbus City Council has remained largely silent with the exception of an emailed statement from Councilmember Shannon Hardin:

“The LGBTQIA community has, both historically and to this day, struggled with race and inclusivity. This moment provides us the opportunity to reflect, acknowledge our shortcomings, and build inclusive spaces, particularly for trans people and people of color. If our community holds the rainbow as our symbol, we must represent all its colors.”

Board member Rob Podlogar said a difference in opinions on what exactly should be said kept them from releasing a more timely statement. When the organization finally posted on Facebook on June 23, it covered a lot of bases, acknowledging the protest, recognizing injustices “such as racism, transphobia and classism,” and requesting “a formal review by the Columbus Police and the Franklin County Sheriff about what occurred during the protests, subsequent arrests and detention.”

Some have called for an independent investigation, but Podlogar reiterated that they will wait for a review by CPD.

As far as new leadership, neither Rothan nor any board member has resigned. Two seats are open on the board at Stonewall, but there are currently no efforts to reach out specifically to trans people of color to fill them. The organization has released information for their “community-wide dialogue” on racism and homophobia.

“We understand that many people feel marginalized, even by those who aspire to serve them and advocate for their interests,” said Tom McCartney, Chair of the Stonewall Board, in the press release. “We hope that all our allied organizations will join us in inviting the greater community to come together, learn together and develop an action agenda that leads to positive change.”

The release said they’d connect with other LGBTQ groups and organizations “that primarily represent people of color,” but Podlogar didn’t say that would include Black, Queer & Intersex Columbus (BQIC), AGOBO or Melanincholy, of which Bennet, Braxton, Miles and Denton are members.

The event will be at the Columbus Health Department, 240 Parsons Avenue, on July 17, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

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